Today's Reading

So, one wintry afternoon when I was feeling particularly hopeless, I typed the name David Starr Jordan into Google and was met with a sepia photograph of an old white man with a bushy walrus mustache. His eyes looked a little hard.

Who are you? I wondered. A cautionary tale? Or a model of how to be?

I clicked through to more pictures of him. There he was as a boy, suddenly lamblike, with spilling dark curls and protruding ears. There he was as a young man, standing upright in a rowboat. His shoulders had filled out and he was biting his lower lip in a way that could almost be classified as sultry. There he was as a grandfatherly old man, sitting in an armchair, scratching a shaggy, white dog. I saw links to articles and books he had written. Fish-collecting guides, taxonomic studies of the fishes of Korea, of Samoa, of Panama. But there were also essays about drinking and humor and meaning and despair. He had written children's books and satires and poems and, best of all, for the lost journalist seeking guidance in the lives of others, an out-of-print memoir called The Days of a Man, packed tight with so many details about said days of said man it had to be broken into two volumes. It was nearly a century out of print, but I found a used-book dealer who would sell it to me for $27.99.

When the package arrived, it felt warm, enchanted. As if it contained a treasure map. I slid a steak knife through the packing tape, and two olive-green tomes spilled out, each glittering with gold letters. I made a huge pot of coffee and sat down on the couch, the first volume on my lap, ready to find out what becomes of you when you refuse to surrender to Chaos.

A Boy with His Head in the Stars

David Jordan was born on an apple orchard in upstate New York in 1851 at the darkest time of the year, which is perhaps why he became so preoccupied with the stars. "While husking corn on autumn evenings," he writes of his boyhood, "I became curious as to the names and significance of the celestial bodies." He could not just enjoy their twinkling; he found them a mess he needed ordered, known. When he was about eight years old, he got his hands on an atlas of astronomical charts and began comparing what he saw on the page to what he saw above his head. Night by night he went, creeping out of the house, attempting to learn the name of every star in the sky. And according to him, it took only five years to bring order to the entire night sky. As a reward, he chose "Starr" as his middle name, and wore it proudly for the rest of his life.

Having mastered the celestial, David Starr Jordan turned to the terrestrial. His family's land swelled and rolled with its own unique constellations of trees, boulders, farm buildings, and livestock. His parents kept him busy with chores, shearing the sheep, clearing brush, and—David's specialty—sewing rags into rugs (his flexor tendons learning early how to wield a needle). But in between chores, David began to map the land.

For help, he turned to his big brother, Rufus, thirteen years older, a quiet and gentle nature lover with deep brown eyes. Rufus taught David how to settle the horses, with long strokes down the neck, where in the thickets to find the juiciest blueberries. Watching Rufus demystify the earth, David was transfixed; he says he held Rufus in "absolute worship." Slowly, David began drawing intricate maps of everything they saw. He drew maps of his family's orchard, his walk to school, and when he finished the land he knew, he turned to places far away. He copied charts of distant townships, states, countries, continents, until his hungry little fingers had crawled over nearly every corner of the globe.

"The eagerness I then displayed," he writes, "rather worried my mother," a large woman named Huldah. One day, having had enough, she took his whole pile of maps, creased and stained with his boyish sweat, and chucked it.


Why? Who knows. Perhaps it was because Huldah and her husband, Hiram, were devout Puritans. They prided themselves on martyr-y accomplishments like never laughing out loud and beating the sun to the fields each morning. Spending one's time making maps of lands already mapped would have seemed like a frivolity, an insult to the use of a day, especially when they were struggling as they were, when there were apples to pick and potatoes to hoe and rags to sew.

Or perhaps Huldah's disapproval was simply a reflection of the times. By the mid-nineteenth century, the obsessive ordering of the natural world was beginning to fall out of fashion. The Age of Discovery had started over four hundred years before, and pretty much wrapped up in 1758, when the father of modern taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus, finished his masterpiece, Systema Naturae, a proposed blueprint for all the interconnections of life. (No matter that Linnaeus's chart was riddled with mistakes: misfiling bats as primates and sea urchins as worms, to name a couple.) As boats raced more frequently from port to port, the excitement of glimpsing exotic specimens and maps—once a way of luring people into shops, taverns, coffeehouses—was wearing off. Dust was collecting upon cabinets of curiosity; the world, it seemed, had become known.

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